When Jacob wakes up from his dream and realizes that “these are the gates of heaven,’ he stacks some stones and pours oil on top. It is an odd thing to do, unprecedented in the Torah. But pouring oil on the stones, like many other things Jacob does in his life, seems to set the trend: for some reason, priests are anointed with oil on their heads in order to become ordained, in order to be ready for a connection with G-d and heaven.
Oil, shemen, is first mentioned in the text in the blessing Isaac gives Jacob: “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the oil of the earth,” and we could suggest that when Jacob pours the oil over the stones he is recognizing that his dreams of angels, received overnight, were like the dew of heaven. He received the most precious of divine gifts – hope – in that dream. And Jacob wanted to acknowledge the value of such a gift. In which case, giving oil back in turn might be seen as tithing (to show appreciation) or in some other way trying to recognize and reinforce the blessing that his father gave him. G-d provided the first half of the blessing, and Jacob reciprocates with a hat-tip to the complementary part of that same blessing.
The act of pouring itself in the Torah has a very specific meaning as well – the only things poured are either oil (for anointing the priests), or the casting of copper, silver or gold for sockets, rings and hooks in the tabernacle. Note how all of the meanings come together: “pour” in the Torah is a way to connect dissimilar objects, either mechanically (in castings) or symbolically (anointings or oil offerings in sacrifices).
One of the odder commandments in the text also involves oil: the ceremony through which a metzora, someone who has harmed someone else in any way from gossip through to murder, is cleansed and “reset” as a member of society. (Lev. 14). The procedure is quite involved, but the final step includes:
The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before G-d. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being purified, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot—over the blood of the guilt offering.
This is most easily understood when we recognize that the metzora case is drawn from Cain and Abel – one brother harming the other. (Explained here) And so the end of the process is one in which it is possible for a person to move on from having damaged his brother. This is precisely the situation Jacob was in when he fled Canaan after having wronged Esau. So the pouring of oil is a way to reset, to find a way forward in the eyes of G-d even after we have done something wrong. And how does one move on? By re-establishing the pathway to connect with G-d: the metzora gets oil applied to him (representing: ear – listening, hand – acting, foot-going) just as the priests are anointed with oil, and just as Jacob anointed the stones. All are cases of new beginnings, with new connections to heaven.
Indeed, in the last example found in the Torah, pouring oil is once brought as a negative case – in the case of the woman suspected by her husband:
That man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it.
The reason should be clear: this ceremony is about clarifying a relationship, exposing divisions and loyalties in a marriage. Oil is about connection – and before there can be a holy marital connection there must first be trust between the two parties. So oil is forbidden.
Another aspect of the same theme is found in the name of Jacob’s son, Asher. The tribe of Asher is gifted with two specific blessings:
Most blessed of sons be Asher;
May he be the favorite of his brothers,
May he dip his foot in oil.
Out of Asher his bread shall be oily, and he shall yield royal dainties.
Why is Asher equated with oil?
I think the answer is a literal one: the letters that form the name “Asher” are the same letters that form the connecting word in Hebrew that translates as “that” or “which”. In the first example in the text:
God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so.
The very word asher means the connecting of an item with its location or identity! Indeed, this example is a critical one: the waters above and below represent heaven and earth, which in turn echoes Isaac’s blessing (dew of heaven, oil of earth), and the purpose of man’s existence in this world: to (re)connect the waters above and below. We are here to invest holiness into everything around us – and this is embodied in the word asher.
Indeed, vegetable oil is not a simple product of nature. The natural world can be represented by a vegetable, but the creation of oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of the vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. Oil represents the work we have to invest in order to build relationships and connections.
Consequently, the name of the tribe Asher is affiliated with oil because oil, and what we do with it (anointing/burning in the Menorah, etc.) is all about connecting the waters above and below – the very origin of Asher’s name! When Leah names Asher, she is declaring that she is connected!
This is all consistent with Chanukah, the festival of lights. On Chanukah, we light oil, and we do it for 8 days (the word “oil” is shemen, and the word for “eight” merely adds one letter to create shemoneh).
Seven is the number of nature in the Torah (as the world was created in seven days). But the number Eight is used to connect man and G-d. So we have the circumcision on the eighth day (Gen. 17:12 and 21:4), as well as the offering of the first-born animal (Ex. 22:29) on the eighth day. Similarly, after seven days of inauguration of the priests, it was on the eighth day that the priesthood was consecrated and started the active service between man and G-d (Lev. 9:1). Many sacrifices and festivals that were involved with establishing a connection between man and G-d were also called for the eighth day.
And of course, events on the eighth, shemoneh day usually also involved oil, shemen. May we all be blessed to be enriched with a connection to the divine!
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @eliyahumasinter and @kidcoder work!]